Around 2002, a group of Banyarwanda in Uganda approached a Constitutional Review Commission headed by Prof Fredrick Ssempebwa to submit their grievances and proposals on how the supreme law should accommodate them as a community. The late Dr Higiro Semajege, a very prominent and well-schooled Munyarwanda, was Secretary to the Commission.
Around the same time, Rwandan and Ugandan troops had just clashed in the infamous Kisangani conflict in the DR Congo. By coincidence Brig Kale Kayihura, a Munyarwanda, had just taken over command of the Ugandan troops from late Gen James Kazini, who provoked the clashes.
So, one of the commissioners on the Constitutional Review Commission, which was gathering views on amendments of the 1995 Constitution, asked the Banyarwanda; “If you were in DRC on which side (Uganda or Rwanda) would you fight?”
Sensing that the question posed was to interrogate their patriotism or lack of it, the group responded that a fellow Munyarwanda, Kale Kayihura, had proved allegiance and loyalty by commanding Ugandan troops against his ethnic brothers from Rwanda. And they had found no fault in Kale’s decision.
This is how simple or complicated the issue of Banyarwanda in the Great Lakes Region may look depending on your angle of perception.
So when political activist, Frank Gashumba, and his followers, this week revealed at a press conference that they are considering renaming their tribe from Banyarwanda, to ‘Abavandimwe’, leaders of the Banyarwanda community in Uganda called this a joke.
Joke or no joke Gashumba sounds serious with his adventure. He said they would in the next few days consult fellow Banyarwanda in Uganda on the matter of changing their tribe name.
Addressing the media on Monday March 15 in Kampala, the Gashumba group under their group, the Council of Abavandimwe, argued that because their ethnic name (Banyarwanda) links them to Rwanda, they are often mistaken or categorised as foreigners yet they are Ugandans.
“Fellow Ugandans, right from the 1900 national census done by the British Colonial Government, it should be clear to all young generations and all those who may not be aware that the Banyarwanda have always been part of this country’s indigenous tribes; a fact that is indeed not known to so many people,” said Frank Gashumba, a leader at the Council of Abavandimwe.
He added; “By the mere fact that the name of our tribe links us with the neighboring country, we are often times mistaken or categorised as foreigners. However, there are those who deliberately use this as a weapon of segregation against our kind. We are proposing to the fellow Banyarwanda to kindly consider re-naming our tribe as Abavandimwe.”
Gashumba and his colleagues have since also changed the name of their organization from Council of Banyarwanda to Council of Abavandimwe just two months after it was launched.
Apparently, Abavandimwe means Brethren. But it may also refer to people from one womb or motherhood. He said they proposed ‘Abavandimwe’ because of the rich tradition of ‘Ubuvandimwe’, which celebrates the bond of brethren.
Mr Gashumba says that due to the name of their tribe, members are being denied national identity cards and passports.
“Unlike our fellow Ugandans, our tribe is being systemically locked out of the economy and public service of this country. Some of us cannot get phone sim cards, open bank accounts, acquire loans or even exercise our patriotic duty to join the police or armed forces,” he said.
Gashumba has therefore triggered a country-wide debate to either accommodate Banyarwanda as they are or create a new identity for them.
But this isn’t the first time such a debate has been invoked.
Around 2010, Hon Henry Banyenzaki, former Member of Parliament for Rubanda West, moved a motion in Parliament to remove Banyarwanda as tribe and replace it with Tutsi, Twa and Hutu, just as they are called in Rwanda.
However, retired Justice Augustine Nshimye, who was at the time a Member of Parliament for Mityana South and Minister for Regional Cooperation called an impromptu meeting and summoned Banyenzaki and leaders Ugandan Banyarwanda Cultural Development Association (UMUBANO) to discuss the matter.
Banyazeki told the meeting that he been approached by some prominent Banyarwanda in Uganda to table the motion. And that he had innocently taken up the task.
During the meeting all leaders of UMUBANO unanimously rejected the motion and denied that their people nolonger wanted to be called Banyarwanda. After the meeting the motion collapsed on the floor of Parliament.
A senior official that has declined being named confided to this publication that there are so many Banyarwanda holding senior positions in the Uganda government and other organizations who have often concealed their true identity and want the term Banyarwanda erased from the minds of Ugandans.
This resulted has into a bitter split amongst leaders of UMUBANO. For instance, the former chairman of UMUBANO, Dr Ephraim Kamuhangire has severally argued Banyarwanda are one of the indigenous communities in Uganda and are not citizens of Rwanda as some people wish to portray them. They are not supposed to participate in Rwanda elections unless if they hold dual citizenship.
It is reported that majority of Banyarwanda in all parts of Uganda have been turning up to vote at the Rwandan embassy in Uganda. But in 2017, the Rwanda electoral lists provided by the Rwanda Electoral Commission indicated 7,000 voters in Uganda yet there are over a million Banyarwanda.
“I emphasize that not all Banyarwanda in Uganda are Rwandans,” says Dr Kamuhangire, who is currently a presidential advisor on Banyarwanda Affairs, in an opinion he wrote in The Observer in early August 2017.
But Kamuhangire’s assertion have left UMUBANO divided. Some of the leaders are of the view that Banyarwanda still have a huge attachment to Rwanda, which some even call home. In fact Kamuhangire had to abandon UMUBANO because of his uncompromising assertions.
The present leadership of UMUBANO says they are prepared to counter Gashumba’s proposal because it doesn’t solve the issue of state harassment of Banyarwanda in Uganda.
“Instead the proposal only wants to take away our identity as Banyarwanda. We shall always be Banyarwanda. When you remove from us the word ‘Banyarwanda’ do you also take away our culture and traditions?” wondered Frank Machari, the Secretary General of UMUBANO.
Mr Simon Kayitana, a youth leader in UMUBANO and a representative of Banyarwanda community in Buganda Lukiiko, has warned that he will mobilize hundreds of thousands of Banyarwanda to demonstrate against Gashumba’s proposal.
“I doubt whether Gashumba is a true Munyarwanda. I hear he used to call himself Frank Ssenyondo. Really, if he is a true Munyarwanda why isn’t he proud of his roots? He is just after money. We are told that he lied to President Museveni that Banyarwanda in Buganda never voted for him in the 2021 presidential elections, which is not true. He promised the president that by renaming Banyarwanda it would make them true Ugandans and take away the special status. That is why he is scheming to change our identity so that he can impress the President. Gashumba should leave issues of Banyarwanda to Banyarwanda,” said Kayitana.
During the just concluded general elections, various government officials alleged that the Rwandan government planned to disrupt the elections.
After the November riots, which were triggered by the arrest of former presidential contender Kyagulanyi Robert Ssentamu a.k.a and resulted in the death of over fifty protesters, animosity against the Banyarwanda increased.
Some social media extremists posted messages calling for extermination of Banyarwanda whom they bitterly accused of causing Uganda’s problems.
Within Uganda, the role of Banyarwanda communities in national politics has long been a source of strain due to sectarian manipulation by successive governments dating back to the country’s independence. It also contributes to the rise in xenophobic rhetoric against members of the Banyarwanda whenever tensions with Rwanda arise.
President Museveni was himself attacked on social media in September last year for being a Munyarwanda and thus a foreigner that shouldn’t be leading Uganda. The president denied being a Munyarwanda.
“I am not a Munyarwanda. I am a Musiita and my mother is Mweene Rukaari and you can go to the beginning of creation, you will not find any Bunyarwandism in me. However, it would not have mattered if I was a Munyarwanda,” the President responded.
In Uganda, it is surprising that both the public and the state apparatus discriminate against Banyarwanda. Today security agencies see every other Munyarwanda – Ugandan citizen or not – as a Rwandan spy.
According to Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, even Rwandan nationals transiting through Entebbe Airport are harassed.
It is like 1982 all over again, when the Milton Obote government discriminated against Banyarwanda by associating them with the National Resistance Army rebel group led by President Yoweri Museveni.
During the NRA war, Rwandan immigrants and Banyarwanda, two groups victimized by the then Obote government, joined Museveni in droves, making up more than a third of the NRA by 1984.
In 2002, thirty Banyarwanda elders met President Yoweri Museveni to, among other things, petition for protection against harassment by security agencies, especially the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and to a certain extent the Military Intelligence (CMI).
The elders reminded Museveni that the ongoing witch-hunt against Banyarwanda brings back traumatic memories of 1982 when the Obote II Government hounded and persecuted Banyarwanda, especially in western Uganda.
Around 2005, about 1000 members of UMUBANO again met President Museveni and expressed their discontent against the manner his security personnel were handling Banyarwanda.
Later, according to UMUBANO leaders, the president asked them to nominate from amongst themselves someone he would appoint to the Immigration department to take care of concerns of Banyarwanda. However, he never fulfilled his pledge.
Of late many Banyarwanda have been denied passports and identity cards and they have been labelled spies of the Rwandan government, which accusations have landed them in jail and invited torture against them by security agencies.
Some groups of Banyarwanda have been evicted from their genuinely acquired land. For instance, over 400 Banyarwanda pastoralists were evicted from Buliisa District to pave way for oil and gas exploration and production. It is after UMUBANO sued government that court awarded each of the pastoralists two million shillings.
In teso, again Banyarwanda pastoralists evicted on the pretext that they had occupied wetlands. They were given six months to leave. Banyarwanda were also chased from northern Uganda in Apac, Pawach and Arua even after having genuinely rented lands therefore grazing.
However, it is said that every time Banyarwanda have presented their grievances to the President he has remained aloof.
However, Mr Machari, the UMUBANO Secretary General, says they will insist on being called Banyarwanda and they will always recognize Rwanda as their origin.
This debate to change the identity of Banyarwanda is therefore likely to attract more harm and would again undermine the stability of Uganda. The issue is stop state-engineered harassment against Banyarwanda and promote policies that entrench them into the social, economic and political strata of the Ugandan society.
Rwandan refugees have triggered wars between the countries of asylum and those of origin; for example, the war that deposed Uganda’s Idi Amin in 1979 and the invasion of Rwanda from Uganda in 1990. They also allied with the NRA rebel group and removed the Milton Obote II government that mistreated them atrociously.
In Congo, when Mobutu Seseko threatened to deport the Banyamulenge—Rwandan Tutsi migrants who arrived in the DRC around the 1880s and are recognized as Congolese citizens—his government was removed.
The impact of Rwanda’s trauma on the DRC has deepened the contagion of conflicts, a trend that established the Great Lakes region as a zone of instability in the heart of Africa.
In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta has responded to the situation in a more humane and reasonable way by granting Kenyan citizenship to people of Rwandan origin who moved to Kenya during the colonial era. President Kenyatta announced that he had granted citizenship to 1,300 people of Rwanda origin in Kericho who had lived in Kenya since the 1940s.
Who are Ugandan Banyarwanda?
The third schedule of the Uganda’s Constitution recognizes Banyarwanda as an indigenous tribe as of 1st February 1926.
When the British acquired the Uganda Protectorate in 1900, Kinyarwanda-speaking people were already an important part of the southern border region.
The early migrants are mainly in areas of tea production in Namutamba and Tooro where they worked as wage earners although a good number took up other menial jobs in other counties of Buganda and their descendant continue to live.
Over the next forty years, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan men and women would journey to Uganda to escape famine, forced labor, and high taxes in Belgian territory.
Annual migration rates are difficult to calculate, but colonial sources suggest that on average more than 75,000 found their way to Uganda every year during the 1940s and 1950s, with dramatic spikes in times of famine (1928-30, 1942-44) and war (1959-64).
Then many other Banyarwanda crossed to Uganda after colonialists in 1910 transferred territories of Rwanda Kingdom Provinces of Bufumbira (present day Kisoro District), and Ndorwa (present day Kabale, Rubanda and Rukiiga Districts) and areas of Ntungamo that were inhabited by native Banyarwanda communities.